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Handful of grit


VEILED WARRIOR: Badam Zari (right) speaks with a woman during her campaign in Khar in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt

Just a few women may be contesting the elections in Pakistan, but they're trailblazers in a land where patriarchs reign.

There's one female candidate that has proven especially popular in the pre-elections press coverage on Pakistan. Forty-year old Badam Zari, of Bajaur in the dry and dusty badlands of FATA, the Federally Autonomous Tribal Region, deserves whatever attention she's garnered for taking the plunge into electoral politics. Her courage in standing up in a culture hostile to women sadly isn't matched across Pakistan, where female representation on the electoral rolls is low. Of the 339 candidates standing for elections from FATA, she is the only woman.

It's more or less the same story across Pakistan. There are only 36 female candidates among the 4, 761 contesting the 272 general seats in the National Assembly, according to data released by the Election Commission of Pakistan in the last week of April. Sadly, this (36) is a number that has remained more or less unchanged over the past two elections.
"The main issue we're confronting here is that all the political candidates from secular and liberal parties are being attacked, " said Mahnaz Rahman, assistant director, Aurat Foundation, an NGO that works on women's rights in Pakistan. "The Taliban is attacking girls schools, political rallies repeatedly, and there is a complete civil intelligence failure to prevent and protect these candidates. An environment is not emerging where women would feel secure about contesting elections. "

Given this climate, Badam Zari and the few other like her stand out as genuine crusaders. Most of them are contesting elections from areas where most would think such a feat unimaginable. Take the example of Veero Kohli, a 50-year old Hindu woman from Hyderabad, Sindh, who has cast aside her bonded labour heritage in exchange for her freedom and the opportunity to stand as an independent candidate from Hyderabad. Inspired by Kohli's open critique of feudal serfdom - in interviews she has equated labour managers to 'pimps' who sell their daughters to the landlords - others moved with her into Azad Nagar, a neighbourhood, which as its name suggests, became a free space for former bonded labourers.

There is also a candidate from the conservative Pushtun belt in western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At 28 years of age, Nusrat Khan from Lower Dir, some 150 kilometres north of Peshawar, has seven children but that isn't preventing her from contesting the elections as an independent candidate.

"The greater the number of women elected to parliament, the better the chance of their being able to address women's issues, " says Dr Yasmin Rashid, yet another contestant on a ticket from Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, or PTI. "I think it's wonderful that these women are standing from very challenging spaces. " Rashid, who is general secretary of the Punjab chapter of the PTI, has decades of experience in electioneering having represented medical boards across Pakistan. For her, an elected member of the PTI body, standing from elections was a natural next-step.

"Changing the health policy of Pakistan is the main reason I have stepped into this humdrum, " says Rashid, of the elections process. Over the years she has fought for the passage into law of a resolution to prevent doctors from revealing the sex of unborn children to their patients, a law that India already has in place. "This is a patriarchal society and women don't want to have female children. However, things have improved quite a bit. "

Rashid's health agenda is focused on pushing the national health budget to take up 2. 6 per cent of the larger national pie (from its current 0. 8 per cent), to focus on preventative healthcare and to concentrate much more on rural healthcare than on building mega hospitals in urban centres. For Badam Zari, who shields her face behind a chador, the motivation comes from asserting her rights and proving to the women of her region that a woman, too, can contest elections.

In the larger political space, however, there are not many candidates. The Pakistan People's Party has nominated 11 women;Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N has seven candidates. PTI only has five. From the most conservative parties - the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F ) the signal is clear: no woman is running on their ticket.

Some 37 million women and 48 million men are registered to vote in Pakistan's upcoming elections. In addition to the 272 general category seats, 60 women will fill the reserved seats for women in the National Assembly. Only 36, however, are contesting for the general category seats.

But thanks to those few who are standing for elections, there is reason to rejoice in some quarters. In an interview with a Pakistani paper, Ibrash Pasha of Khwenda Kor, an NGO working to empower women in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA, said the candidacy of Nusrat Khan and Badam Zari is reason to celebrate. "I doubt if they will be able to bag any seats, but they would have sent a strong message and set a precedent for others to come. "

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